Roots (Donmar Theatre, London) – review by Carole Woddis.

Arnold Wesker is now 81 and has written 49 plays.  He tends often to be overlooked, perhaps because he has chosen to write and show he is writing from a Jewish, left wing perspective.  No great sin you might think but still in England, it’s best to keep your roots, let’s say, under wraps.

But back fifty years ago, Wesker was making waves.  As part of the so-called `kitchen sink’ set of young writers, he placed working class lives centre stage.  And not in an  abstract way but with acute realism.  The Kitchen (1959), for example, examined kitchen workers, in situ, the grease and the grime, the over-heated tensions and conflicts long before celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay shone a spotlight.  Wesker’s kitchen was far less glamorous.

In the same year, 1959, he also wrote Roots, the second part of what became known as the Wesker Trilogy – a trio of autobiographical plays looking at the implications and consequences of left wing idealism through three working class families.  Chicken Soup and Barley (1958), set in an East End Jewish family holding communist views (like Wesker’s own) was very successfully revived at the Royal Court two years ago.  The third play, I’m Talking about Jerusalem (1960) looked at the attempt to put idealism into action, ending in disillusion.

Roots, you could say, follows a similar trajectory.  Young Beatie Bryant travels back to Norfolk, to her land-working family (Dad is a pig-man).  Full of hope, she is intoxicated with ideas absorbed from her politically active, Jewish London boyfriend, Ronnie and is always spouting what he says.  She berates her family for their bovine acceptance of their lives climaxing in a memorable denunciation about the working classes settling for so little: `you ask for the third rate, you get the third rate’.

Suddenly, in that moment, she realises Ronnie’s schooling and mantra about love and education have rubbed off on her.  `It’s working’, she shouts, eyes agleam.  `I’m talking.’ Finally, she is thinking for herself even though she has lost Ronnie.

Far from being disillusion, Beatie’s realisation is a moment of extreme ecstasy and optimism.  It still has the potential to make the heart race.

Sadly in James Macdonald’s carefully stylised, at times, hypnotic revival it doesn’t quite get there, despite the words coming from the wholly remarkable young actor, Jessica Raine (recently lead role in BBC’s Call the Midwife but totally mesmerising in a clutch of stunning stage performances prior to that in Simon Stephens’ Harper Regan, Punk Rock and Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London).

Age, of course, may have blunted its impact though heaven knows, Wesker couldn’t have been more prescient or his message more relevant given the state of much of today’s popular culture, especially on tv.

It may have something, also, to do with the very humdrum regularity of the lives so accurately reflected on stage.  Like watching paint dry, the only excitement for several minutes is watching Beatie’s mother, Mrs Bryant (the wonderful Linda Bassett) steadily peeling potatoes or drying up the tea-cups.

Yet the drama is indeed in the very detail of such mundanity, of tedium punctuated only by the sounds of the fishman departing for market or the local bus.

Many years later, Caryl Churchill would write a similar play about stunted rural lives in Fen (1983).  Wesker’s Roots in this revival emerges as a time capsule, lovingly re-enacted and beautifully pinpointed by Macdonald through back-breaking realism (mother and daughter shouldering a real tin bath), crepuscular lighting and sudden pools of light, contrasting, for example, clothes hanging on the washing line with Beattie’s new London dress and subtly emphasising Wesker’s underlying point.

In a very real sense, a new life is being born.

Roots is at the Donmar Theatre to Nov 30; see www.donmarwarehouse.com

© Carole Woddis  Oct 10, 2013.